Monday, September 26, 2022

1 Kings 18:16-46

1 Kings 18:16–46 (NIV)✞: Elijah on Mount Carmel

I’m assuming this is a beloved story for all Christians1. It’s got everything we look for in the Scriptures: clearly delineated good guys and bad guys; it’s obvious that the LORD is firmly in control of all events; and the and of the story shows the good guys triumphing over the bad guys. We don’t have to go parsing through the text getting through all of the nuances; it’s simply a case where the LORD prevails. It’s a passage I’ve been waiting to write about ever since I started in the book of Kings.


In Chapter 17 we were told about a drought God had brought upon the land—not just the land of Israel, but across the entire known world of the time—and that Elijah had left Israel to go live with a widow and her son. In the last passage he returned and Obadiah was afraid to tell King Ahab about Elijah’s return; Ahab had been actively seeking Elijah out, so he was obviously keen to see Elijah, but Obadiah was afraid that Elijah would not actually stand in front of Ahab.

And that’s where this passage starts: Obadiah passes on the message and Ahab comes to see Elijah. Ahab sets the tone immediately, asking, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” (verse 17 (NIV)✞). Elijah responds that he’s not the one who’s been troubling Israel, Ahab (and his family) are, having abandoned the LORD to follow the Baals.

I noticed that the text usually refers to the god (singular) Baal, though this particular verse refers to “the Baals” (plural). The ESV Study Bible notes indicate that “the Baals” refers to “various local manifestations of the god Baal-hadad.” They had a more fulsome discussion of this in a note in Chapter 16:

1 Kings 16:31–33 … Baal is not strictly a name but a title (meaning “lord”) for the ancient Semitic god Hadad—“Lord Hadad” (Baal-hadad)—first known from the ancient city of Ebla in northwestern Syria and from Egypt, but most thoroughly understood through the Ugaritic texts from Ras Shamra on the Syrian coast. These texts depict Baal (Hadad) as a storm god; the fertility of the land depends on his sending rain. He is son of the high god El and husband of the goddess Anat; his enemies are Yam (“Sea”) and Mot (“Death”); his weapons are thunder and lightning; and his symbolic representation is the bull. Baal worship presented an attractive alternative or supplement to the worship of the Lord (Yahweh) for many Israelites throughout their time in Canaan, no doubt partly because that land was so utterly dependent on rain for its fertility. …

ESV Study Bible

The fact that “Baal” was a god of storms and represented by a bull will quickly become very relevant to this passage…

Elijah tells Ahab to summon people from around the nation and bring them to Mount Carmel, along with “the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table” (verse 19 (NIV)✞). And, to show how desperate Ahab is to end this drought, he actually does it! Not only that, but he lets Elijah lead the show: when everyone is assembled Elijah addresses the crowd, asking them how long they will “waver between two opinions;” if the LORD is God then they should follow Him, but if Baal is God then they should follow him. The people, however, don’t respond.

As for the actual test, I’ll just quote the text:

22 Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the LORD'S prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. 23 Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. 24 Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”


Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”


25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” 26 So they took the bull given them and prepared it.


Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.


27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.

verses 22-29 (NIV)✞

When Elijah says he’s the only prophet of the LORD left, I’m reminded if Obadiah hiding a hundred of God’s prophets. One of three things is happening:

  1. Elijah is exaggerating for effect, or
  2. Although Obadiah had hidden a hundred prophets it was long ago and they’ve all died (I don’t think this is likely), or
  3. Elijah knows about the other hundred prophets but is judiciously not mentioning them, to keep them out of danger.

I notice that it’s not just Elijah who’s taunting the prophets of Baal, it’s the author(s) too: “But there was no response, no one answered, no on paid attention.” Burn.

When Elijah feels that this has gone on long enough and he has proven his point he has the people join him in repairing the LORD'S altar. Once they’ve done so, and prepared the bull and the wood, he really adds insult to injury by having twelve “large jars” filled with water—a precious commodity, during a drought!—and poured over the offering and the wood. This is a case where knowing the proper translation of “large jar” would probably be helpful—I’m assuming this is larger than the kind of “jar” that we keep jam in—but we don’t have to spend too much time guessing because we’re told that it’s enough water to not only drench the offering and the wood but actually fill up a trench that Elijah has dug around the altar.

And then, once all of this “preparation” has been done, Elijah asks God to act:

36 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”


38 Then the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.


39 When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The LORD—he is God! The LORD—he is God!”

verses 36-39 (NIV)✞

Elijah has them seize the prophets of Baal and slaughter them, and then tells Ahab that rain is on its way:

41 And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” 42 So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.


43 “Go and look toward the sea,” he told his servant. And he went up and looked.


“There is nothing there,” he said.


Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.”


44 The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.”


So Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, ‘Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.’”


45 Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain started falling and Ahab rode off to Jezreel. 46 The power of the LORD came on Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.

verses 41-46 (NIV)✞


In the last passage I mentioned that I wasn’t quite sure if the drought was intended to be a punishment against Ahab/Israel for their sins, or just a “natural disaster.” Another option should have occurred to me, however: perhaps it was neither, but was specifically set up as a showdown between God and this so-called god, Baal. This is now my primary theory2.

Think about it:

  • First of all, we have God declaring that a drought is going to occur, and that no rain will come until He says so. Any devout follower of Baal—who, recall is a storm god—should scoff at that. “Who is this Hebrew god, claiming that he is going to withhold rain? My storm god is the one who really controls the rain!” And, of course, the scoffer would have been disappointed in the end, since Baal, the “storm god,” was not able to give his followers rain, for years, no matter how they cajoled him.
  • Then, for the challenge, Elijah decides to use bulls, which is how Baal was represented.
  • Finally, the actual test is that the two “gods” are challenged to burn their bull in fire. Again, surely Baal—the storm god, whose weapons are thunder and lightning—should have been able to meet this challenge!

I’m sure God sent the drought to force this exact confrontation: He would prove, on every single level, that Baal isn’t actually a god by proving him powerless in the very aspects that are supposed to be his strengths: the storm god was not able to provide rain, nor to send lightning to consume a bull.

It’s no wonder that God’s people flock to Him at the end of the passage.

“You troubler of Israel”

It’s pretty clear from Ahab’s discussion with Elijah that Ahab feels Elijah is somehow to blame for this drought. Since Elijah delivered the prophecy that it would come, Ahab seems to be blaming him for it.

Except I don’t think that’s fully true; we saw in the last passage that Jezebel was trying to kill all of the LORD'S prophets, which indicates to me that she believed God was really to blame. So while Ahab is lashing out at Elijah, I think he’s actually blaming God.

Or perhaps he really is blaming Elijah. We’re not always logically consistent, as humans.

Regardless, at the end of the passage Ahab definitely believes Elijah when informed that rain is coming.

Wavering Between Two Opinions

I said earlier in this post that there’s not a lot of nuance in this passage, but that might have been an oversimplification. We should notice that Elijah is not accusing the people of worshipping Baal instead of worshipping God, he’s accusing them of doing both. He calls it wavering between two opinions, though I’m pretty sure the people didn’t see it that way, they just worshipped two gods. The LORD commanded them to do certain things, and they follow those commands (pretty much… sort of…), and there is also this god Baal and they worship him too.

The point God is making (through Elijah) is that He has always commanded the people that He is to be their only God. It’s not a matter of worshipping Him and also worshipping other gods to hedge their bets, it’s a matter of worshipping Him alone – trusting in Him alone. What they should have seen, throughout their history, is that trusting in God alone is enough (because He is the only true God anyway), but they probably didn’t know their history very well. (Something for which we should not get too judgemental…)

The LORD'S Altar

Close observers might note that this is all happening in the northern kingdom of Israel, not in the southern kingdom of Judah where the temple resides. So when Elijah and the Israelites repair the altar of the LORD it’s not the real altar, it’s what the Old Testament calls a high place, which God’s people are constantly judged for having. However, in this case it seems that worshipping the LORD is more important than removing a high place; as the ESV Study Bible notes put it:

1 Kings 18:30 he repaired the altar of the LORD. The authors of 1–2 Kings are generally opposed to worship at such “high places” …, but they are even more opposed to idolatry, and they do not criticize Elijah for this action. The Lord himself removes the altar after it has served its purpose (18:38).

ESV Study Bible

Twelve Jars

Another nuance that I may or may not be reading too much into is the fact that Elijah has twelve jars of water poured over the altar. It seems to me that mentions of the number twelve in the Old Testament are always supposed to make us think of the twelve tribes of Israel, so it’s not surprising that Elijah uses twelve jars of water, but I’m wondering if this is supposed to mean something to the northern nation of Israel, which doesn’t represent all twelve tribes; just ten and a half.

Like I say, I might be reading too much into that. Twelve is definitely related to the twelve tribes, but I don’t know if this is a message to the “ten and a half tribes.” I don’t recall other passages where the LORD is asking the two nations to reunite.


  • It’s probably a beloved story for Jews as well.
  • Speaking, of course, as an untrained, unlearned, non-scholar of the Bible.

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